From Church to Research

The University of Uppsala is the oldest in the Scandinavian peninsula as it was founded in 1477, even before Columbus discovered America. Few people know the reason why Uppsala was chosen as the ideal location for the first academic centre in this northern part of the old continent. As many things back in the day, it was strongly connected to the presence of the Church and as it was pre-reformation, the church in Sweden was Roman Catholic.

When Christianity first arrived in Sweden back in the 800s it’s first centre was on the island of Birka, approximately 58 kilometres south of Uppsala, on lake Mälaren. It was a strategically important place as a lot of trade at the time passed through there. However, Sweden’s first Archbishopric (the place where the Archbishop, the most ‘important’ Catholic priest of the region, has his headquarters) was instituted in Gamla Uppsala in 1164. Why Gamla Uppsala out of all places? The reason is simple – just as the Catholics have done throughout history when trying to expand the fellowship of their religion, they tried to ‘localise’ it and adapt to the previous cult of the region. In this period  this was connected to the Vikings Norse religion which had its most sacred centre in Gamla Uppsala. This is also where the great men (stormän) of the time (“kings” per se didn’t exist at this time, they were other great men) resided – so both spheres of power, religious and rule of the land were located there.

If you have a chance Gamla, Uppsala is surely worth a visit. Located 5 kilometres north of Uppsala city centre, it is the Mecca of many Swedish school children who learn about the Vikings in the well presented museum and surrounding area. Outside the museum, one can see the mounds, artificial hills, in which previous great men were buried and also the spot where sacrifices to the gods were made; in fact, historians are still debating whether they also conducted human sacrifices on this site.

The choice of Uppsala as the site for the centre of the Catholic religion was obvious and the transition between the Viking culture and Christianity can be observed if one looks at the Viking runes situated in the garden in front of Universithuset (University house) which is located between the Gustavianum museum and Snerikes nation.

The importance of the connection between Church and university can also be observed by looking at the oldest university building in Uppsala, which is currently the site of ‘Gustavianum – Uppsala University Museum’, located in front of the cathedral’s main entrance. When the university was founded, it consisted of four faculties:

  •      Philosophy – taught in academic circles since ancient Greek times, it was the study of the world, a science before Galileo invented the ‘Scientific Method’ which then distinguished philosophy as we know it today from scientific studies.
  •      Law – to educate future lawyers, judges, bureaucrats and rulers of the land.
  •      Theology – to teach aspiring priests the knowledge and skill set they needed to become an active part of the Church.
  •      Medicine – which started being studied at the beginning of civilization but in late medieval times was studied more methodically in many universities.

These are the four categories mentioned in ‘O Gamla Klang’ an old student song that has it’s original version in  German (O Alte Burschenherrlicheit) a Swedish version of it was written by August Lindh, the founder of Uppsala’s ‘secret’ student society ‘Juvenalorden’, in the early 1900s. This song is normally sang at the end of all gasques/ formal dinners and students from the different categories  stand up and sing their part according to what they study and for the last few verses of the song everyone is standing on their chairs and toasting. Once the song is over people must not sit down again as if they do, it is said that they will not graduate. Everyone follows this rule with the exception of Västergöta Nation members who for some reason have a tradition of sitting down again and singing one more song.

When you tell your friends that you study in Uppsala University, mention some of the above facts. You are after all, part of a small group of students who study in an environment full of quirky traditions and student madness that strongly influences the rest of the city surrounding the university.

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